The Great Books Aren’t Timeless, But They Can Still Teach Us

The 20th-century British philosopher Iris Murdoch once adroitly described the pathological condition of Late Modernity. “What is feared is history, real beings, and real change,” she wrote, further explaining that we fear “whatever is contingent, messy, boundless, infinitely particular, and endlessly still to be explained.”[1] This fear leads us to desire the unattainable because nonexistent, namely a “timeless non-discursive whole which has its significance completely contained in itself.”[2] Many historiographical efforts of Modernity, most notably the Hegelian dialectic, attempt to discover or invent this timeless and coherent system and ultimately fail. Another such attempt is that of the supposedly self-sufficient “Great Books” canon which, in its Christian education context, purports to represent a coherent tradition running from Jerusalem to Athens to Rome.[3] The opposing binary option to these projects is the postmodern nihilism that treats history as just another vehicle for the Nietzschean will-to-power. We will explore how contemporary theorist Quentin Skinner does away with this binary by providing a third way, a philosophy-of-history respectful of the past and at peace with the particular and … Continue reading The Great Books Aren’t Timeless, But They Can Still Teach Us